Tuesday, October 23rd 2018
A happy surprise sandwiched between a signing in Belfast and an appearance at the Dublin History Festival was a detour to the town of Banbridge, County Down. This was the birthplace of one of my favourite characters in the story, Francis Crozier, captain of Erebus’s travelling companion, HMS Terror. Believed to be one of the last to perish in the Arctic, Crozier’s sacrifice on the fatal expedition to the North-West Passage is commemorated with a massive monument, featuring carvings of the ships and concrete polar bears, which looms over the town square, next door to the Crozier’s elegant Georgian family home, which is being restored.
Less than a week later I was in Providence, Rhode Island for the start of a week-long US and Canadian tour. Beautiful buildings on the hill but I gave my first transatlantic Erebus talk in an old snuff movie house, now reborn and called the Columbus – which seemed a good name for a talk on exploration. The Americans and Canadians don’t do understatement, so instead of the book being called Erebus The Story Of A Ship, over this side of the Atlantic it’s called Erebus, One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and The Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time, and the cover is black.
More black halfway through my talk in Brooklyn. At one point all the lights went out and the screen went dark as the power cut off. Playing for time, I said that this was a recreation of the Polar winters, when, for five months of winter the sun never rose above the horizon.
Flew from Providence to Newark. A little touch of nostalgia as we skimmed low over the cranes of Newark Docks, where, thirty years ago, and by the skin of my teeth, I’d boarded the container ship that would carry me on the last leg of Around The World In Eighty Days. At the Explorers Club in New York I met a number of grizzled Arctic veterans. One of them winked and said “I can get you down to the wreck, Mike”. It’s been my dream to actually scuba down to Erebus and touch her sides, but Parks Canada seem to have put comedians low down the list of applicants! I learned that the ice was so bad up there this year that they could only manage a day and half’s diving onto the wrecks.
Great audiences at the Opera House in Toronto. An old vaudeville theatre, which had only recently hosted Tom Jones. My last speaking event of the tour was at the very smart new HQ of the Canadian Royal Geographical Society, looking out over the Ottawa River just beside the Rideau waterfall. The highlight of the evening, and probably of the whole tour, came as a complete surprise to me, when John Geiger, on behalf of the RCGS, presented me with the first ever Louie Kamookak medal. This was named after the great Inuit historian and explorer, who died, far too young, earlier this year. He made it his life’s work to find out valuable Inuit evidence of what happened to the Franklin expedition. In a small way, I feel we were fellow-travellers.